Join our Mailing List

"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Everything Is on Fire - Tibetan Buddhism inside out

February 13, 2008

Books & Culture, January/February 2008
by John B. Buescher

The Buddha said that the world is like a house being consumed by
flames, and that we are inside it. I remember when I first read that,
almost forty years ago. I thought, someone has stared into the depths
of suffering and has told what he has seen.

To me, his statement seemed ironically to contrast with and to confirm
a truth most evident about Catholicism, in which I had been raised. It
appeared to be burning up in front of me, but, at the same time, it
could no longer recognize the flames. I wouldn't have put it this way
then, because I vaguely welcomed the changes that were occurring in
the Church, but as I look back on it now, I believe we were losing our
nerve. We refused to appreciate how deeply into the very particles of
matter and spirit our suffering and sin were implicated, and how vain
were our attempts to engineer a new Church, a new society, a new human
being, and a new age. We saw evil, but it was outside us, we thought,
in "structures of oppression."

We made felt banners and no longer talked about Hell or sin or guilt
or penance. We no longer knelt much, or fasted, but feasted instead.
We gathered around a table and held hands or played guitars. We sang
about happiness and love. We did street theater to speak Truth to
Powers and Principalities. We pretended we were already in Heaven. We
supposed we were as gods, and as The Whole Earth Catalog put it, that
we might as well get good at it.

We were no longer serious. The only real sin seemed to be to believe
that one was a sinner. So why be Catholic—or Christian—at all? Why
bother going to church or to confession? Judging by the decline in
church attendance over the past decades, I was far from being the only
one who asked those questions.

Kierkegaard has a parable in which a clown, not having time to take
off his makeup, suddenly appears onstage and shouts "Fire," but the
audience thinks it is part of a comedy. They laugh—but soon they
perish in the flames. While I sat on my living room couch and read the
Buddha's sermon, however, I saw that the flames onstage were real.

As I continued my study, Buddhist Tibet became part of that stage.
China had set it afire and it was burning during the 1960s and 1970s.
People were fleeing and telling about the conflagration in such vivid
terms that it seemed to have sent its smoke all over the world. As
Tibetan Buddhist elementary logic texts put it, the existence of
smoke, seen on a mountain pass, entails that fire is present there. I
could see that smoke from where I was and so I could understand the
existence of the fire. Anyone can still catch a glimpse of it, even
from a living room couch, just by paging through some books on Tibet.

An excellent place to begin is Matthew Kapstein's The Tibetans, a
balanced, clear, and comprehensive introduction to the geography,
ethnography, religion, and history of the region. Its maps are
helpful, although its photographs are not quite up to the quality of
those in some of the older survey books on Tibet that it has
superseded. And readers who are unfamiliar with the basics of Buddhism
will need to supplement Kapstein's explanation of it, as well as his
discussion of the recent politics of the region.

That politics is complex. China and Tibet, ethnically and culturally
distinct, have sometimes advanced armies against each other and
claimed sovereignty over each other. For much of the last few
centuries, China has exercised some power over Tibet, although by the
beginning of the 20th century, that power was purely nominal. Then the
Chinese People's Liberation Army swept into the region in 1950.
Determined to eradicate religion, the Communists killed, tortured, and
imprisoned teachers and other "counter-revolutionaries," destroyed
monasteries and temples, and smashed religious images or sold them on
the international market. Tibetans died in forced labor gangs and
through famine induced by agricultural collectivization.

Tsering Shakya's The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern
Tibet Since 1947 is a clear-eyed description of recent Tibetan
political history. Shakya weaves a red thread of suffering through his
pages, but he also picks out golden flecks of human nobility. The
young Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959. He has lived there ever since,
not far from the Indian-Tibetan border. He also travels around the
world to publicize Tibetans' plight (or, as Chinese officials say, to
cause trouble) and to teach Buddhism.

>From the turmoil in Tibet, many Buddhist teachers have dispersed
around the world. They represent a religious tradition brought to
Tibet from India beginning in the 8th century. Twenty-five years ago
the Dalai Lama made his first visit to the United States. He gave a
series of public lectures on the basics of Buddhism. His translator,
Jeffrey Hopkins, collected, edited, and published them as Kindness,
Clarity, and Insight. This volume offers a clear but simple
introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, recently reissued in an anniversary
edition with Hopkins' remembrances of the tour, which was a watershed
in Western interest in Tibetan Buddhism and in the Dalai Lama as a
religious teacher.

One can also approach Tibetan Buddhism through biographies. Lobsang
Gyatso's Memoirs of a Tibetan Lama is a gem. Gyatso became a monk as a
boy in rural Tibet and traveled to Lhasa with a caravan of traders to
enter Drepung Monastery, which then housed ten thousand monks. He
paints a beautiful picture of the human complexities of the monastery,
his adventures in negotiating his studies, and his duties as a house
proctor for the monastery and a lender of seed grain to the lay
community.

After the Chinese invaded Tibet, Gyatso fled with thousands of others
to be with the Dalai Lama in India. He established the Buddhist School
of Dialectics in Dharamsala, the mountain town where the Dalai Lama
resides, as a place where both Tibetan refugees and Westerners could
study. His memoir ends with an afterword by his friend and translator,
Gareth Sparham, who recounts with sorrow how Gyatso was murdered. The
most likely suspects were Tibetans angry at his support for the Dalai
Lama's effort to suppress the worship of their "protector deity" Dorje
Shugden, who they believed was angry because their religious practices
and beliefs were being mixed with those of other sects and religions.

That Tibetan Buddhism suffers from sectarian violence came as a
revelation to many in the West, where in the post-1960s era the
religion has often been portrayed as the very exemplar of gentle
tolerance. This perception reverses a common 19th-century Western view
of Tibetan Buddhism, with its rosaries, monasteries, strict clerical
hierarchies, robes, chants, elaborate liturgies and set prayers, as a
pagan counterpart to Papistry.

But if many in the West at that time saw Tibetan Buddhism as having
supposedly corrupted the simple, pure message of the Buddha,
freethinkers and liberals often saw it as a living fossil, surviving
in the mountains while Buddhism elsewhere was either diluted or, as in
India, annihilated by Islamic invasions and Hindu opposition. They saw
Tibetan Buddhism not only as a rarity in itself but also as a base
from which they could launch a critique of Christian orthodoxy.

Two books are of particular value in understanding the West's
misperceptions of Tibet over the last few centuries. The best is
Donald Lopez's trenchant Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and
the West, which describes Westerners' use of Tibet as a kind of screen
onto which they projected their own fantasies of hidden truths and
secret spiritual treasures. Another is Patrick French's Tibet, Tibet:
A Personal History of a Lost Land. French was head of the Free Tibet
Campaign for years, but became disillusioned with the Pro-Tibet Lobby.
Part of his book recounts a trip he made to Tibet, where he saw the
complex difficulties of Tibetans' political past as well as their
clouded future.

A brilliant parody of older Western treatments of Tibet is Jamyang
Norbu's The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of the Great
Detective in Tibet. It tells the tale of Holmes, after his struggle
with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, when he traveled to Tibet.
Conan Doyle had probably been inspired to mention Tibet by the Russian
adventurer and journalist Nicholas Notovitch's "translation" of an
imaginary manuscript he said he discovered in 1887 in a Tibetan
monastery. Notovitch's popular Unknown Life of Jesus Christ purported
to describe the "missing years" of Jesus' life, during which, it was
revealed, he joined a secret brotherhood and made his way to Asia.
Over the last century, writers of occult fiction, a genre pioneered by
Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Theosophical Society founder Helena
Blavatsky, have concocted many psychic adventures in Tibet, including
such nonsense as Frederick Spencer's 1899 fantasy Phylos the Thibetan,
Levi Dowling's 1908 "alternative gospel," The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus
the Christ, Baird Spalding's 1924 fable about an expedition to Tibet,
The Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East, "Lobsang
Rampa's" 1956 novel The Third Eye, and cult leader Frederick Lenz's
1995 pseudo-autobiography Surfing the Himalayas.

Quite apart from such flim-flam, Tibetan Buddhism has attracted
devotees in the West. Its teachers offer insights into suffering and
methods for cultivating mental equanimity and compassion. It appeals
to Westerners' utilitarian pursuit of self-betterment because it
seems, at first anyway, to set aside the necessity of faith and to ask
the inquirer only to try its methods and see the results. It says that
one can become a Buddha, an "awakened" one, by one's own efforts. Its
goal is enlightenment about a truth beyond the limits of contingent
reality. It is as dubious about objective reality as certain currents
of Western philosophy have become. It proclaims impermanence and
emptiness, and so fits our experience of upheaval. It questions the
reality of the "self." Nowadays the West does too, and often conceives
even the Gospel as a manual, not for the personal development of
holiness, but for the impersonal engineering of social justice.

Ecumenists have organized exchanges between Buddhists—especially
Tibetan Buddhists, because of the Dalai Lama's interest—and
Christians—especially Roman Catholics, influenced by the late writer
and Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Toward the end of his life, Merton
became intensely interested in Buddhism, and traveled to India where
he met the Dalai Lama. Just before he died in 1968, Merton seemed to
be running toward Buddhism as fast as he could go. "O Lord I do not
have any idea where I am going," begins one of his prayers, on sale as
a postcard at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky where he
lived. In 1996, the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist monks and nuns
visited there, inspired by Merton's writings and example. They met
with Christian monks and nuns for discussion and fellowship. But from
that week-long event, which I attended as a reporter, what I most
vividly remember is standing outside Merton's hermitage, recording the
sound of cicadas and the wind shushing through the high summer grass.

The Dalai Lama is an advocate of interfaith dialogue. One fruit of
such conversations is The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the
Teachings of Jesus, the edited transcript of the Dalai Lama's
impressions of Gospel selections read to him at the 1994 seminar at
the London Center of the World Community for Christian Meditation. In
the introduction, the Center's director, a Catholic priest, writes:

    When a Buddhist, perhaps especially a Western Buddhist, says that
all religions are compatible because they represent the different
personal or psychological needs of individuals, many may add or think
"at different stages of their development." Behind this may be the
feeling—which I never sensed at all in the Dalai Lama in either
private or public discussion—that the notion of a personal God is
acceptable, but that it represents a more immature, perhaps an
earlier, stage of spiritual development, a kind of balancing third
wheel on a child's bicycle.

The Dalai Lama, a good man, would not beat his hosts over the head
with it, but that is indeed how Buddhists understand theism and even
the various other schools or sects of Buddhism that they do not agree
with. Such teachings, they believe, are potentially helpful to those
who are not yet highly gifted but who will eventually, perhaps in a
future lifetime, be able to comprehend and profit from the highest
Buddhist teachings.

The history of Buddhism has been punctuated by waves of "discoveries"
of scriptures filled with novel doctrines. Against those Buddhists who
tried to keep what seemed to be obvious forgeries out of the sacred
canon, the followers of new ways said that the Buddha did teach these
things, but not to everyone. He hid them until someone could make good
use of them. This was the explanation for the appearance of the "Great
Vehicle," the Mahayana, and its scriptures, which first came to light,
as it were, around the 1st century of the Christian era, and then,
centuries later, for the appearance of the Tantric scriptures. Such
"discoveries" still occur in Tibet. Scriptures, supposedly hidden away
by the ancient yogin and saint Padmasambhava, are retrieved from
niches in rocks or from hidden recesses in individuals' minds.

In Christianity, after the Church rejected the Gnostic scriptures that
turned up in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, this sort of thing did not
occur much, until nostalgia for Gnosticism began to grow in the 19th
century and new scriptures and teachings began to appear out of spirit
mediums' minds, or out of the earth, guarded by angels and inscribed
on disappearing golden tablets, or out of novel movements of the
spirit at religious gatherings. Buddhism's inability or disinclination
to enforce scriptural discipline has meant that its "bible" is vast. A
block-printed multivolume copy of it in Tibetan requires forty yaks to
carry, although nowadays one can also get a huge chunk of it and many
more volumes of commentary free, on a single cd, from the Asian
Classics Input Project.

Tibetan Buddhism lays out higher and lower paths for those of varying
capacities. Perhaps the London Center's Catholic director believes
that Buddhists ignore their own distinctions, but he believes that a
Christian's holding to the notion of a personal God is immature.
"Christian theology," he writes, "also recognizes the danger of this
kind of infantalism—it calls it anthropomorphism. It recognizes that
there are indeed stages of faith in which the symbol of God is
understood more maturely. Every believer in God wrestles with idolatry
and superstition before coming to the mystery of the divine Other."
All is One? One is the all? God is beyond words? Is that all there is
to say? When I was younger this kind of apophatic argument would have
impressed me, I think, but nowadays it does not. I have seen that,
shortly after "All is One," usually comes "Cast everything that is not
our One into the flames." And who, except God, has the authority to
say that? Most Christians believe that the object of Christian faith
is God, not "the symbol of God." And that God has a name and became
flesh and dwelt amongst us. And that he is not totally unknowable and
alien. And that the Nicene Creed is not merely a "thought
construction."

The Christian enthusiasts who gathered in London asked the Dalai Lama
for an extemporaneous exegesis of the Gospel. We read that having
heard the Gospel account of the Resurrection, he wondered if Jesus had
achieved a Buddha's "emanation body." The editor notes that people
cried at this point, although, he says, it is hard to say why. Perhaps
they were grateful for having shared an insight into the Gospel that
was beyond words, because I cannot see a cause for it in the
transcript of what the Dalai Lama said. But perhaps it was instead a
symptom of what I think of as illuminatio praecox—"premature
enlightenment," which assumes a unity in desire or feeling where it
does not otherwise yet exist. It is commonplace. Those afflicted by it
often call themselves "prophets." They stand in a world on fire and
try to put out the flames by denying their reality. It is not fire,
they say. It is merely "fire."

Some iconoclasts in the West seek a path "beyond" specific religious
expressions, which they regard as idols of the mind. They are
embarrassed by particularity, most of all by the Incarnation. Although
Christian, they frown on Christian missionaries, who might encourage
Tibetans to convert. The Catholics among them were dismayed by John
Paul II's less than completely enthusiastic assessment of Buddhism in
Crossing the Threshold of Faith and mourned the obstacles to ecumenism
that they believed it created. And they saw the Second Vatican
Council's declaration that there is truth in other religions, not as a
nod in humility to the inscrutable Providence that might even save
those who are not members of the Church, but as the first step toward
a welcome universalism that will not "privilege" any particular
religious truth. Nevertheless, it is not just the Pope but the Dalai
Lama, too, who says that the goals of different religions are not the
same. All these paths do not meet at the center. They must connect
onto a single path before that. In the end, only one breaks into the
clearing where the first and last fire burns.

The translation of Buddhist scriptures into English and their
publication continues apace. But how do Buddhism's Western enthusiasts
regard the translation of the Bible into Tibetan and its distribution
to Tibetans? One must search carefully within the ocean of books
currently in print to find an account of it. One is Alan Maberly's God
Spoke Tibetan: The Epic Story of the Men Who Gave the Bible to Tibet,
the Forbidden Land. It was first published in 1971, but it will most
likely never be available from any of the publishers specializing in
Tibet for Western seekers.

I am neither a Buddhist nor a prophet. I have reverted to the
Catholicism that gave joy to my youth. How did this happen? Buddhism
focuses on the life of the monk and nun, who have renounced the world
in an effort to achieve enlightenment and thereby climb out of the
cycle of suffering transmigration through rebirth. Compared to
Christianity, it has only a rudimentary teaching on the governance of
society or on the value of the family. Throughout Asia, Buddhist
clerics usually have a lot to say and do at funerals but little or
nothing at weddings and births. This sensibility has found fertile
ground in the West, where we have spent the last few centuries
attacking the principles that encourage the regeneration of the given
structures of society—especially of marriage and the family.

Several years ago, after spending more than a decade researching the
early history of Western interest in Buddhism and seeing how it was
tied into the growth in the West of radicalism and atheism, I realized
how thoroughly these views are themselves historically conditioned and
are therefore neither necessary nor ultimately given. Whatever
"Progress" is, it is neither linear nor inevitable nor irreversible.
That applies, I concluded, to the modernist revolution itself, the
uncritical acceptance of which, I further came to see, had drawn us
toward chaos, into what John Paul II called "the Culture of Death."
This led me to admit the existence of natural law, which asserted
itself despite the massive efforts in our culture to deny it. This law
pointed to the existence of a Legislator. And the institution that
held most unwaveringly to what I had concluded was the truth of human
nature was the Catholic Church. How had it done that in the face of so
much in the culture that denied it? It could not be through the
individual merits of its members or its clergy—their sins and failings
were manifold and were often on display in the newspapers. As with
smoke and fire, I concluded that if it was not the individuals in the
Church, then the institution itself, in a way that was mostly hidden
to me, benefited from intelligent guidance beyond its mortal capacity.

As a result, I achieved an odd kind of enlightenment. Or a number of
small ones that added up to this: I realized that what I most urgently
needed was repentance. Not for the sin of holding on to an infantile
form of faith, but rather for turning away from the Faith and looking
to myself for salvation. After almost forty years, I saw the smoke on
a mountain pass. God, I felt very strongly, had lit the fire. And the
trail of smoke led back home. All these inferential steps I am
describing make it sound like a series of trap doors shutting, but
really it felt more as if, in the dark, a person I knew was drawing
closer and closer to me in silence—"anthropomorphic" though that may
be. I made the sound of one (closed) hand clapping (the breast). Mea
maxima culpa. And I began the "yoga" of genuflecting before Him at
whose name every knee shall bend.

Bewildered at my turning back to the Church, someone asked me why I
had chosen Catholicism, of all religions (Could there be a worse one?
was implicit in the question). I could only answer that I did not have
that kind of choice. When the door opens onto the truth, you can walk
through it or you can walk away from it, but in honesty you cannot
just look for another door.

In religion it is not enough for people to do the best that they can.
That can never be enough. Our life is more perilous than that.
Everything is on fire. We cannot put out the flames, for we too are
engulfed. I pray to Jesus Christ not because he was the teacher who
showed us how to do the best we can, but because he is the Lamb of God
who takes away the sins of the world. Miserere mei, Domine.

At least two of us have found our way into this pew. Paul Williams,
author of The Unexpected Way: On Converting from Buddhism to
Catholicism, is a former practitioner and continuing scholar of
Tibetan Buddhism. He is also a relatively new Catholic. He writes
about why the two religions are irreconcilable. Buddhists are not
theists. And, despite talk about the unknowable "Other," Christians
most certainly are theists—at least those who have not decided that
God is a projection of a limited mind. Williams also argues that
reincarnation cannot ultimately provide a basis for religious practice
because it reduces the significance of individual lives to a vanishing
point.

Buddhism has always needed to shore up "conventional" truth—including
moral truth—because it is undermined by the doctrines of selflessness,
impermanence, and emptiness. This is why Chesterton wrote that
Buddhism was not a creed but a doubt. It is plain to me that Buddhist
sages are similar to Christians in their capacity to sin. Buddhism,
however, by locating our suffering in ignorance, rather than in the
will, and its cure in knowledge, makes it difficult to think that one
who had really experienced enlightenment could sin. Buddhists are
often inclined, I believe, not to recognize enlightened beings' sins
as sins, but to explain them away as "skillful means," actions that,
to the unenlightened, look like sins but that spring from someplace
beyond good and evil. Christians have sometimes broached this sort of
rationalization—"To the pure all things are pure"—but have generally
hesitated to insist on it. Christian doctrine weighs strongly against
it.

Does it need to be said that Buddhism does not know Jesus Christ in
any sense except an indirect, hidden, and metaphorical one? How then
can a Christian fail to say that it is lacking something, and awaits
the Gospel? The actions of Jesus were essential to the salvation of
all. He was fully human and fully divine. He rose from the dead. He
will come again.

If this is "anthropomorphism," Christians are the world's biggest
fools, as St. Paul made clear, and no one is saved, no matter how many
emanation bodies he might envision. But if it is true, then the work
of Christian missionaries in Asia is one of profound charity. If
Westerners will not undertake it, Asian Christians will, and, with
hearts aflame, will send missionaries to the West.

John B. Buescher retired in June 2007 from many years as director of
the Voice of America's Tibetan Broadcast Service. Among his
publications are Echoes from an Empty Sky: The Origins of the Buddhist
Doctrine of Two Truths and The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear:
Agitator for the Spirit Land. He has just published a monograph on the
career of Levi Dowling, the author of The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the
Christ. He is a parishioner of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in
Annandale, Virginia.

Books discussed in this essay:

Matthew Kapstein, The Tibetans (Wiley, 2007).

Tsering Shakya, The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern
Tibet since 1947 (Columbia Univ. Press, 1999).

The Dalai Lama, Kindness, Clarity, and Insight (Snow Lion, rev. ed., 2006).

Lobsang Gyatso, Memoirs of a Tibetan Lama (Snow Lion, 1998).

Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and
the West (Univ. of chicago Press, 1998).

Patrick French, Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land
(HarperCollins, 2003).

Jamyang Norbu, The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of the
Great Detective in Tibet (Bloomsbury USA, 2003).

The Dalai Lama, The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the
Teachings of Jesus (Wisdom, 1996).

Alan Maberly, God Spoke Tibetan: The Epic Story of the Men Who Gave
the Bible to Tibet, the Forbidden Land (Evangel Bible translators,
1991).

Paul Williams, The Unexpected Way: On Converting from Buddhism to
Catholicism (T&T Clark, 2002).
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank